Alexander Solzhenitsyn

MOSCOW — For the Western world, Alexander Solzhenitsyn peeled back the layers of secrecy that obscured the Soviet system's inhumanity to a people relegated by Josef Stalin to the role of cogs in a machine.

To his countrymen, he embodied the conscience of a nation yearning to break free from the shackles of totalitarianism, and ultimately through his writings helped erode the Soviet regime.

Russia has its pantheon of dissidents who, through their words, shook their fists at the brutality of Soviet communism, from writer Vladimir Bukovsky to nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov. But none was as iconic to the struggle as Solzhenitsyn, who died of heart failure Sunday in Moscow at the age of 89.

His epic works, "The Gulag Archipelago" and "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," revealed the cruelty behind Stalin's notorious camps — a system of forced labor in which millions of Soviet citizens were exploited as grist for the construction of cities and infrastructure from Moscow to the harsh remoteness of the Siberian taiga.

Solzhenitsyn conveyed its brutality so realistically and compellingly, after spending years himself in labor camps in what is now Kazakhstan.

"No writer that I can think of in history really was able to do so much through courage and literary skill to change the society they came from," David Remnick, the New Yorker magazine editor whose account of the Soviet collapse in "Lenin's Tomb" won the Pulitzer Prize, wrote of Solzhenitsyn. "And to some extent, you have to credit the literary works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn with helping to bring down the last empire on Earth."

Solzhenitsyn wrote more than 20 books. Like many great Russian writers during much of the Soviet era, his work was conducted in secret and with the belief that his works likely would never be read.

He would later write that, "during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but also I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known."

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he couldn't accept the award until 1974, after he was deported from the Soviet Union and had settled in Switzerland. He would move to the U.S. two years later and live at Stanford University in California and later Cavendish, Vt., before returning to Russia in 1994, following the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.